Summary of the Body Modification in the Ancient world seminar

15.12.2021
Theme of November’s AMME Seminar was Body Modifications in the Ancient World. The two speakers approached this theme from different perspectives, Dr Julia Giessler discussed the slave marks used in Babylonia whereas Dir. Dr. Ria Berg (The Finnish Institute in Rome) focused on how Romans used jewelry.

Evidence of body modifications can be found from multiple cuneiform texts. The Akkadian word šimtu is used of all typed of body marks, whether they are natural, such as birthmarks, temporary like paint, or artificial body modifications. Šimtu is even used for the tools that were used in marking or modifying the body. The problem is that it is very easy to confuse šimtu to similar looking words with totally different meanings. Body markings were also used on animals and because of this some have interpreted that the status of slaves was similar to that of animals. This is however a very modern approach to ancient slavery. This modern interpretation also affects how slave markings have been interpreted. There is some confusion between different types of markings which makes it more difficult to interpret how ancient Babylonians viewed slaves and slavery. What is known is that slavery was not based on race or racism, instead it was based on diverse form of dependencies such as debt, war or chattel. Slavery was not always permanent as it could be ended  by manumission or adoption. It was possible for slaves to start a family or gather wealth, so they did have some legal capabilities. This means that it is necessary to revise modern interpretations of both slavery and slave markings in ancient Babylonia.

So, what kind of slave markings were used? Ownership marks are mentioned in some texts, most of which are from private archives. These texts mainly mention slaves as objects of transaction. The texts reveal that sometimes the owner of the slave was written on the slave’s hand. Sometimes a slave could have two names on them, but it seems from the texts that the name of the new owner was not necessarily written on the slave in case the slave was sold. Ownership marks were not only names, but single letters were used as well. Also, the markings could be in different languages. It is likely that these markings were mostly done by tattooing.  Some institutional texts mention slave markings as well. These mentions mainly concern temple slaves who were marked with the divine symbol of the temple’s god. Not all markings mentioned in texts were as permanent as tattoos. In the code of Hammurabi, the abuttum hairstyle is mentioned. The law states that a barber Is not allowed to remove or modify the abuttum hairdo. Abuttum was most likely used as s punishment on disobedient and adopted children. It seems unlikely that is would have been used as a general sign of slavery because it required regular maintenance. The difference between slave markings and the abuttum hairstyle is that slave marks are not really mentioned in a negative manner whereas the abuttum is quite often mentioned negatively.

In her talk Dir Dr. Ria Berg challenged the idea that wearing jewelry was reserved only for the elite in the Roma society. Instead, she suggested that in the light of evidence it seems that it was mainly the non-elite people who wore jewelry. There were some restrictions on selling gold rings. First, they were reserved only for senators, but later they were also sold to free-born Roman men as well. Iron rings were often used as a symbol of slavery, so they were not generally used. By looking at official portraits of Roman matrons, it is visible that they are wearing very little jewelry and the jewelry they have are quite small. Being modest was a virtue and these elite women wanted to follow this virtue also in their portraits. It is possible that certain types jewelry was reserved for specific professions. Iconography shows that dancers are often depicted with jewels on their bodies, for example on their ankles. Some ankle rings were designed to make noise when the dancers moved their feet. So, the jewelry was not only designed to look certain way, but to also make sounds that would enhance the movements of the dancers. The jewelry worn by the non-elite was also bigger than the jewelry worn by the elite. It might have been more appropriate for lower class women to wear jewelry that emphasized their bodies than it was for the elite women.  Most of the jewelry that has been found have been golden. For example, from the Vesuvian cities 359 pieces of golden jewelry was found, but less than 20 bronze and 30 iron jewels were found. The jewels of lower social classes often imitated the more expensive and thus were often plated with thin coat of gold.

Make sure to join us for this year’s last AMME Seminar on the 16th of December!